Vikings: An Appreciation

A local group is out to clear up some misconceptions about Leif and his robust ilk.

As he slips on 45 pounds of iron armor, West Chester’s Steve Clarke debunks a few of the myths surrounding Vikings—foremost, their lives weren’t all about old-fashioned feuds. Far more than pillagers and plunderers, Vikings were craftsmen, storytellers and fearless explorers.

“People have all kinds of wrong ideas,” says Clarke, vice president of Leif Ericson Viking Ship, Inc. (LEVS) and curator of the model railroad at the Brandywine River Museum. “I’ve spent an entire day in this [armor], but no one put it on to lounge about. They only put it on when they had to.”

Here at the Newtown Square Public Library, Clarke and his cohorts are dressed in period costumes. Clarke himself is surrounded by the Viking artifacts he’s collected. Two tables are filled with pieces of gold and silver that once circulated as currency, brass beakers used as wine crafts, the wooden spindles of master weavers (responsible for fine European garb and the sails on Viking ships), maps, and a chess-like game called Hnefatafl.

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The Swarthmore-based LEVS exists to educate others that Leif Ericson (also spelled Eriksson) was the first European to set foot on North American soil around the year 1000. This is the first in a series of open public meetings to beef up the organization’s membership base, which stands at 40. A curious father and his young son stop in, but the two quickly retreat. Maybe it was the heavily armored Clarke that spooked them.

In 1964, the U.S. Congress designated Oct. 9 Leif Eriksson Day. LEVS celebrates its Leif Ericson Day on the closest weekend day. This year, the festivities will be held Oct. 12 in Marcus Hook.

“I grew up with this,” says Avondale’s Karen Johnson, a LEVS board member who oversees the organization’s website and its newsletter, Norseman News. “I always brought him into my school for show-and-tell.”

She’s referring to her father, LEVS president David Segermark, one of four captains of the Norseman, along with Y. Len Gustafsson, Marty Martinson and Dave “Wolf” Sutton. The Norseman is a 40-foot (half-size) working model of a Viking warship. The organization docks it at the Kalmar Nyckel Shipyard on 7th Street in Wilmington, Del. The vessel has traveled by shipping crate to Sweden and Russia. While in Russia in 2003, the ship was raided, and exhibition materials were stolen—plundered much in the same manner stereotypically attributed to Vikings back in the day.

The Norseman also participated in North America’s first Millennium Celebration at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in 2000. It was there, in 1960, that archaeologists unearthed evidence of a Viking village Ericson named Vinland for its abundance of grapes.

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Originating in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the Viking Age began in the eighth century and ran through the 11th. The word itself is Scandinavian. Vik means “bay” or “creek,” viking “to go exploring.”

As for Ericson, he did just that, sailing southwest from Greenland, which his explorer father, Erik the Red, founded after he was exiled from Iceland for murder. The ever-eager Ericson eventually followed the lead of merchant/explorer Bjarni Herjólfsson, who saw land on one voyage but turned back because of dense fog.

After working with the king of Norway from 995 to 1000 to spread Christianity, Ericson could afford to buy Herjólfsson’s ship. He equipped it with 35 men, set sail and discovered Helluland, Markland and Vinland (where the explorers built a village and camped for a winter before returning home).

With the purpose of honoring Ericson as “America’s First Hero,” LEVS regularly participates in Scandinavian and other historical festivals, as well as Tall Ships events (as a member of ASTA, the American Sail Training Association). As a nonprofit educational organization, it makes living history presentations at schools. In all, it participates in 12-14 events a year.

In May, when the organization travels to Brooklyn, N.Y., for a Viking festival and parade, it costs $40 in tolls to cross two bridges with the ship—turning many motorists’ heads along the way. Every April, they head to Asheville, Ohio, 20 miles south of Columbus, the city named for the Italian explorer more commonly credited with discovering North America in 1492.

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“Who?” poses Hildegard Lindstrom, a LEVS board member from Downing-town. “Columbus didn’t know where he was going—and when he returned home, he didn’t know where he’d been.”

Adds Clarke: “There’s no Columbus controversy. It was 500 years later.”

In other words, it’s no contest—even if Columbus is the one honored with the Oct. 13 national holiday. Clarke says Columbus consulted records that would’ve been kept in the churches, evaluated the route, and made a “shrewd guess that he could go straight across [the Atlantic]. It might have been done earlier, but because of trade winds and boat space, you couldn’t store enough food and water [to survive the trip].”

To his great advantage, Columbus was a writer—and he mostly wrote to glorify his own exploits. “There’s a lot of ignorance around,” Clarke says. “When you learn in grade school that ‘in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,’ a child never forgets that.”

If Columbus is ever mentioned in Lindstrom’s circles, he’s referred to with a lowercase “c,” though Segermark is more politically correct. “We avoid the word ‘discovered,’” he says. “Even when Leif Ericson arrived, there were people (American Indians) here—but he was the first European.”

A retired service department supervisor for Philadelphia Electric Company, Segermark fondly recalls participating in a staged raid on the Delaware River during the Tall Ships Festival held for the Bicentennial in 1976. A Viking ship’s raid on a replica Santa Maria made the front page of the Evening Bulletin.

For years, the Ravnen sat in Segermark’s Newtown Square driveway. When the group retired the ship, it was sold to a Swarthmore family as yard art and a backyard playground. A newspaper “for sale” ad had attracted a handwritten letter from two young sisters that began: “Dear Mr. Viking …”

The asking price for the Ravnen was $7,500, but it sold for $750. The sisters—Emma, 9, and Sarah, 7—climbed around in it for five years. Their mother, Judith Byron Schachner, wrote and illustrated a children’s book about their experience called Yo Vikings! In it, the burly truck driver who delivers the boat is Segermark, who now lives in Maryland.

Back on land at Newtown Square Public Library, Segermark is manning a PowerPoint presentation titled “Viking Culture and the LEVS Organization.” It features images of weapons pulled from Viking graves, and of the Viking gods from whom we derived our days of the week. Tyr’s day, for instance, evolved into Tuesday.

Viking ships were crafted from wood hand-split with axes, and Segermark shows slides of various vessels. In one picture, a modern cruise ship looms behind LEVS’ Norseman.

A longtime operating room nurse at Bryn Mawr Hospital, Lindstrom likes to speak of the role of Viking women. They held the keys that kept provisions safe in their unique longhouses, which looked like upside-down ships covered with insulating sod sides and roofs (much like the ones now popular in green building). There, family members would live right alongside servants and slaves. Still, the latter always occupied the far end of the home, away from the warmth of the fireplace.

“The wife was in charge when the men were away,” Lindstrom says. “They were very clean. They kept on their person ear spoons for scooping wax from their ears, and tweezers (she has examples of both) to pull facial hairs. It’s only a rumor that Norsemen invaded and killed everyone. It’s also said that the men washed once a week to attract the women.”

Lindstrom is wearing bronze jewelry, all period reproduction pieces, including older adornments dating from the 1930s that her mother owned. For Lindstrom, involvement with LEVS is purely cultural. She’s a direct descendant of the King of Sweden, Gustav Vasa, who ruled in 1523.

Victor Berg, a 15-year-old sophomore at Haverford High, is a crew member along with his grandmother, LEVS board member Charlotte Berg. He’s involved “for Nanna” and because he’s interested.

Segermark, too, maintains membership because of cultural ties. His father was Swedish.

“Throughout school, I was always getting into trouble in history class. Every time I was asked who discovered America, I’d say Leif Ericson—and I’d flunk the course. My dad always told me [that], and I believed him,” Segermark says. “After there was official certification in Newfoundland, I went looking for my teachers (in the Lower Merion school system), but they’d all retired.”

To learn more about Leif Ericson Viking Ship, Inc., visit vikingship.org.

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